The OF Blog: What is literary fiction?

Monday, May 18, 2009

What is literary fiction?

Consider this the question of the week. Curious to know how you would define it, what examples you would cite, and your relationship with that term. Myself? I'll be busy much of the week administering final exams and calculating final averages before I change jobs in the middle of next week. I'll weigh in later, but it might be a day or two at least.

31 comments:

Mark C Newton said...

I would define it as a book which, generally, is reviewed by more people than buy it. :)

Ben said...

I'm wondering:
a) What inspired the question
b) if you see a difference between capital and lower case l literature...

etrangere said...

Fiction done in the medium of writing, by opposed to TV series/movies.

Larry said...

Ben,

Just a combination of reading a literary journal and an introduction to Clark Ashton Smith's work.

Eric said...

Literary fiction to me is simply fiction or works (since it isn't all fiction) considered Canonical by the majority of experts in a field (say American Lit professors) and that has lasted the test of time thus far. The last category in some ways is even more important. To name a couple of works that would fit into this category: Faulkner's Sound and Fury, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening

However, certain contemporary works such as Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex and Huruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore are often called literary fiction as well. Many will call them this because these are "serious" works as opposed to "unserious" genre fiction of the masses. But I think the best way to understand the term is to understand it as relating to "time" and "potential." Contemporary books like the ones I named above that are classified as literary fiction are the books critics and reviewers believe stand a chance of standing the test of time.

I also believe there are de facto Canons that form around genres. Clearly there are Canonical works and author within Science Fiction: Asimov, Philip K. Dick, LeGuin, etc. These are names and books that everyone recognizes, and despite some of them being published fifty years ago people are still reading these books.

Liviu said...

Literary fiction is fiction in which the words count more than the story, plot, world-building...

tim said...

I have come to think of literary fiction in two ways, one good and one bad. So the bad/cynical one first, which has been cited here already. It's the stuff we are 'supposed to read', books cultural elites/imperialists/ mo-rons like Harold Bloom thinks make up a canon, much to the poverty of our imaginations. An arbitrary, exclusionary tactic at best.
The second definition has to do with the level of readability. Literary fiction can operate on multiple levels, suggesting that the author has faith in his/her audience to bring to the table their own experiences. Another possibility is, as has been said already, that it can be read to experience the pleasure of language itself, regardless of plot, character, or setting (though how these are described, related, and enacted are often part of the pleasure). So, Graham Greene, M. John Harrison, Daniel Johnson, Steven Erikson, Chinua Achebe, Patrick Chamoiseau, Deborah Eisenberg, Rikki Ducornet, Henry Miller, Alan Moore, etc = lit-fic. On the other side are Stephen King (most of the time) Dan Brown, the Preston/Child duo, (why are the only people coming to mind thriller writers?,

MattD said...

Literary fiction positions itself as (or retroactively, is seen as) aware of, and questioning or perpendicular to, the modes and norms of Romantic fiction; and is part of, or is marketed as being part of, the larger conversation of fiction doing the same.

Eric said...

I have come to think of literary fiction in two ways, one good and one bad. So the bad/cynical one first, which has been cited here already. It's the stuff we are 'supposed to read', books cultural elites/imperialists/ mo-rons like Harold Bloom thinks make up a canon, much to the poverty of our imaginations. An arbitrary, exclusionary tactic at best.In what way is Harold Bloom an imperialist or a moron for that matter? And how does reading Canonical fiction impoverish our imaginations exactly?

Charles said...

Again, depends on the context.

For example, in my reviews, when I describe a work as being "literary fiction" (opposed to genre), it usually means there's a focus more on character or language, instead of say, plot.

Which is different from saying this fiction is literary.

Daniel Ausema said...

I'd argue that "literary" is a way of reading texts more than a quality of the texts themselves. Or maybe better, a variety of ways of reading. Reading that's more than just entertainment (though entertainment may be a part of it), that's more aware in some way of the text rather than just consuming it.

So literary works, in as much as you can call a work that, are those that reward reading in one of (or usually several of) those ways.

Eric said...

My points got cluttered by the italicized text. So I'll respost.

Tim, in what way is Harold Bloom an imperialist or a moron for that matter? And how does reading Canonical fiction impoverish our imaginations exactly?

keele864 said...

Some part of me wants to say it's like pornography - You know it when you see it.

I'm exhausted now and not up to writing a long and exhaustive response, but I think authorial intent may be a large part of it. One can write literature without writing "literary fiction"/

lianemerciel said...

Seconding Liviu's definition: it's fiction where the prose matters most, and everything else is secondary to how the author uses (and often, but not always, experiments with) language. Plot, character, and accessibility can fall by the wayside, and often do.

I think that there are certain thematic elements that crop up again and again in literary fiction just because they tend to be of interest to the type of person who wants to write that way, but they aren't inherently part of the definition.

Nothing says literary fiction has to be about the inner turmoil of an overeducated upper-middle-class bookish individual, but you'll see a lot more of that than of Navy SEAL types rushing to save the world from impending biochemnuclear DOOM!!, because it's easier to make interesting patterns with words if they don't actually need to go in any particular direction.

tim said...

My beef with Bloom is his reification of a Western Canon that ignores most of the West and its creative expressions. His insistence on Europe as the center is not only misleading, it ignores most of the valuable writing that has been produced since the 16th century. My crankiness comes in part from my own biases in my research, in which I agree with Edward Said that ESPECIALLY after the middle of the 20th century, lists like Bloom put together and writing that ignores the post-colonial challenge to the West (in part, a challenge which argues that the West, by conceptually ignoring its colonies, has never really understood itself, suggesting the West is much harder to define). I also take issue with his denouncement of political readings of works of art. This has always seemed to me to be the last bastion of an imperialist mentality - the idea that what has actually been done to people and places has no bearing on how people creatively respond to the world is an ignorant innocence on par with what Greene condemns in his The Quiet American. It is a dangerous way of thinking about the world, because it allows for responsibility to be shirked (oh, what, did I do that? My bad). This is how I categorize Bloom as imperialist... but yes, I should have said imperial-minded as I didn't mean he was out planting flags on small islands, but that conceptually and intellectually he is partaking of a mentality that at least owes a substantial debt to that tradition.

Eric said...

Well, fair enough, Tim. Although I think his list is more inclusive than people give credit, especially once it hits the 20th century: The Western Canon according to Bloom.

I'm curious. What works would you include that you feel Bloom leaves off?

SciFiGuy said...

Well somebody has to write what keeps the university literature professors employed...and gives the students ulcers.

Anonymous said...

Depends if you're using the term "literary" in a pejorative or approving sense. ;-)

In the pejorative sense, it refers to fiction deemed "serious" enough to be worthy of discussion by academics and critics, which has snob appeal no matter how flawed or deadly dull the writing may be. I'll pass on naming names!

In the approving sense, it refers to fiction that is marked by a consistently high quality of writing, most often all the elements of fiction writing taken together being done very well--characterization, plot, thematic elements, prose style, intelligence in the exploration of ideas and moral issues, etc. It could also be something that's very well written in some respects and adequate in others, but that also tries to do something very original or unusual in the context of superficially similar works, and that either succeeds or "fails honorably" in that attempt. Example of the consistently high quality type for SF would be much of Ursula Le Guin's fiction, example of the less consistent but more risk-taking type would be a fair amount of Roger Zelazny's earlier works.

Larry said...

Anon,

You hit the nail upon the head. I plan on addressing the positive/negative aspects of that term in a day or two, but what you and others have said have covered quite a bit of my thoughts on the issue.

Anonymous said...

I guess the other main point is there is still a lot of fiction that is "good" even if it isn't "literary", it's just that sometimes your mind and emotions are yearning for the kind of reading experience that only comes from a literary (non-pejorative) fiction work. Other times you want a "ripping good read" and you go for something like The Element of Fire or God Stalk, neither what I would call literary but both damn good.

The Lord of the Rings is literary, The Hobbit isn't, The Silmarillion...??? But all three are very good.

Howard and ERB and Merritt could do some good yarns but they didn't do literary fiction. But, so what? Sometimes you just want a good yarn.

Or, for horror, Lovecraft and Blackwood hit literary in just a couple of stories each, otherwise no way! But they're great. Aickman and Ligotti hit literary way way way more. And they're great too!

So literary (the non-pejorative sense) is one type of good writing. There are some less ambitious, less complete types of good writing that do the job a lot of the time too. And there is lots of bad writing that aspires to be literary, much as there's bad writing that aspires to be pulp or puzzle game or moral edification. Sturgeon's Law and all that.

Hal Duncan said...

c.f. your previous question of the week, "literary fiction" is the X defined by the abjection of "genre fiction".

Larry said...

Hal,

So it's defined more by what it's not than what it is?

Hal Duncan said...

I think so. I'm a bit busy at the moment, but I'll try and expand on this, in a short blog post probably.

Basically, the way I see it, the features of strange fiction I call quirks (subjunctivity and modality shifts that challenge suspension-of-disbelief) became (over the last few centuries) the markers of difference by which a whole bunch of fictions were othered. The key clue for me is that these works are described not as of-a-genre, but simply as genre in and of itself. In the literal meanings of "literary" and "genre", all fictions are strictly speaking both -- "having the features of literature" and "in a tradition of aesthetic forms". The opposition of those terms in the discourse indicates an establishment of normative boundaries, a segregation out of that which is "other", on the basis of difference-markers.

With the creation of Realist literatures in contradistinction to Romance, Gothic, "sensation novels", pulp and eventually that "genre fiction", the quality that's being abjected (expelled, rejected, scorned) is essentially what we commonly call "sensationalism", I think.

But, yeah, I'll try and lay out what I mean in more depth as soon as I get the chance.

Larry said...

Cool. Sounds similar to some of my thoughts on the issue, namely that fiction before the mid-19th century was much more free-form, with not as much standardization of tropes as we see today.

But part of me keeps thinking there is something else to it than just exclusions defining what is "literary fiction." I don't believe it has a 1:1 correlation with mimetic fiction, but all of the answers so far in this thread seem to make for a nice composite. Perhaps I'll have a post as well up tomorrow morning. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.

tim said...

Eric- I have been editing citations and a bibliography all morning, so my mind is just barely alive, but I have two particular things in mind about Bloom, and one other thing.
That first, I do agree that his list is long and quite broad, and is probably made up of more books than most people will ever read.
But (and these comments are reserved for his 20th century list, otherwise I would be here all day) sometimes his inclusions of regional literatures outside of the United States and Western Europe comes off (to me) as more patronizing than inclusive, like the 'token black man' of television legend. What supprised me the most about Bloom is that Canada was one of the countries that suffers from this 'good job, at least you're giving it a go' mentality.
The other thing, and more concretely. In his MASSSIVE list of 20th century American lit, there is not a single Native American author. No Sherman Alexie, no Leslie Marmo Silko, no D'arcy McNickle, no Coming to Light (a fantastic collection of myths, songs, histories, and literature). My own list isn't very big, but I picked things that really should be on any reading list of American writing.
The other second thing, is that despite Blooms refusal to engage political readings, obviously his choices are in some fashion political. No one needs to read that much Faulkner, but Bloom's apparently conscious choice to short change the Beats (yet Champion people like Denis Johnson) is odd to me.

Hal Duncan said...

Larry:

New blog post up now, fyi:

here

Larry said...

Just read it. Will respond at length later, more likely in the morning, since I will have three hours to waste at work for once. Good stuff.

Matthew Cheney said...

Answers to the question say more about the people answering than any "reality". The way the phrase is used is determined by geographies and eras, by what cultures and subcultures people belong to, by certain educational experiences, etc.

For myself, because of various experiences and interests, I tend to use the term "literary fiction" as a short-hand for certain network of writers, publishers, distributors, and readers that is generally distinguishable in the United States from other networks of writers, publishers, distributors, and readers. But that is often a messy distinction because there's plenty of overlap, and few readers actually limit themselves to only one sort of written fiction (if they read written fiction at all).

To people who use the term negatively, it generally means "that which I don't like", just as plenty of people use "science fiction" to mean the same thing, thus making distinctions that, to someone who is knowledgeable about science fiction, make no sense -- because most people who are invested in a term use it as a descriptor, not a value judgment. (And having fumbled around at ridiculous length elsewhere about this idea, I'll now hold back!) I tend to like labels only when they can be used as a lens for better understanding and better appreciation (both of what is written and of how it is read). Labeling large groups of texts only to condemn what is labelled seems, at best, and most charitably, to be a playground game.

Larry said...

Matt,

I view it as a Rorschach Test of sorts. My mother is an English teacher and outside of the Narnia and Tolkien books, I didn't grow up reading any fantasy; most of what I read were histories and "classics." In both undergrad and grad school, my readings both inside and outside my history major tended to be academic in nature and that presumed element of "literary fiction" has appealed to me on occasion ever since. I didn't really discover "genre fiction" as such until I was in my mid-20s and one month away from finishing my MA, so I don't quite have the same sense of separate modalities as many others here might have.

Was going to write a bit more on it, but as you can see by the timestamp, I'm up a bit late again with little to show for it, other than I have only 20 more finals to grade and then I can pack all my belongings and move them to my new job that starts next Thursday. Might write an essay this weekend, if I am not too busy sleeping and/or traveling about the Nashville area. But I should have learned by now not to make even vague promises as to when I hoped to have something written!

Mrinal Bose said...

Literary fiction is something which the intelligent of us, with some sensitivities intact, read for enrichment of their lives.

koreanish said...

The talk of the prose vs. the plot is interesting. My sense of literary fiction is that it is about the quality of insight offered on the human condition. I think many literary fiction writers of today faltered when they rejected plot as being beneath them. The rise of the literary thriller in the 90s seemed to me an acknowledgment that the way had been lost.

Under this definition, to my mind, certainly, Ursula LeGuin is included.

 
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